Posted by: Josh Lehner | November 7, 2016

The Crook County Conundrum

Crook County is something of an economic conundrum in recent years. There have been a number of stories about how well it’s doing economically, which generally focus on the data centers and investment taking place. This is certainly good and welcomed news, no doubt. However, if you actually looked at the data, you may be surprised.

What I mean is that the local unemployment rate in Crook County is nearly back down to where it was prior to the Great Recession, however the actual number of jobs has barely recovered from the depths of the crisis. This was evident in our recent county bubble chart update. The Bend Bulletin noticed that too and I shared with them some thoughts and work our office had along these lines. Read their great article from this past weekend here.

crookunemp

Now, the way you square this picture, of course, is by looking at the labor force. We know that the unemployment rate can go up for good reasons and down for bad reasons. It is possible that the declining Crook County unemployment rate is actually a bad, or mostly bad story. Given the employment figures, this looks like it may be a factor. But it turns out to be largely a demographic story.

Recall our office’s previous work on the potential labor force across rural Oregon. While the impact of retiring Baby Boomers on the economy is real, much of rural Oregon has already gone through this demographic drag on net growth rates. Crook in particular is all the way through it based on our office’s population forecast. The county’s labor force peaked in 2008. Since then, the actual labor force has declined by nearly 650 individuals. Our office’s estimate of the potential labor force has fallen a similar amount.

crooklf

The main issue, as mentioned in the Bend Bulletin article is where the actual jobs are and will be located. As Employment’s regional economist Damon Runberg notes, there is a fair number of commuters heading into Bend where the bulk of Central Oregon’s jobs are. Given the differences in how the household and employer survey are conducted, this is likely a factor in the Crook County conundrum as well.

All told, Crook County’s outlook is relatively bright. The fact that the actual labor force figures and our office’s estimate of the potential labor force show similar trends is, I think, an overall good sign. That or a lucky data coincidence. But the working-age population is growing again and expected to continue to do so. Being located near a fast-growing metropolitan area like Bend is also a positive factor, as is the near-by airport in Redmond. I will reiterate what our office wrote over the summer and we included similar sentiments in our rural Oregon report:

It is certainly possible that the actual number of jobs and the actual size of the labor force will remain smaller in the future than in the past. However demographic trends and the population forecast suggest that the outlook is brighter than the conventional wisdom suggests. Many challenges remain of course, but demographic pessimism is likely overstated.


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